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How to Write Great Opening Lines for an Admission Essay

Want to grab an admission officer’s attention?
Want to immediately endear yourself to that scholarship committee?
Want to stand out from the pile?

Write an intriguing first line. Dive right in to the heart of your story. So many students I work with wait until the middle of their essay to get to the heart beat, the fire, the riveting moment. Don’t make that mistake! Create a captivating first line or two, and then follow up on your promise to deliver a compelling story.

Allow me to share an example of a BEFORE and AFTER from one student’s essay.
The plane ride from Tampa to Houston was mostly fun and games and it was a great opportunity to catch up with other members of my youth group, many of whom I had not gotten to spend much time with over the past several months. Our trip continued with another 6 hour flight which took us to Lima, Peru and afforded us with a few hours of sleep before awakening in the morning to embark on the 11 hour bus ride through the Andes mountains.

Bo-ring, right? The student spends way too much time setting up the background for his story about travelling to Peru for a mission trip with his youth group. In the middle of the essay he talks about meeting a little girl and how the interaction impacted him. I suggested instead setting the stage for the entire essay with this scene.

My knock on a tattered sheet of metal hanging on makeshift hinges of wire, revealed a surprised and apprehensive young girl.
“Estan sus padres?” I asked her with a friendly smile.
She shyly smiled back and said, “No estan mis padres.”
Then Britta explained that both of her parents had gone to work in the jungle eight hours away for two months in order to harvest mangoes, guava, bananas, and coffee. In their absence, she was left to care for her five year old and three year old sister.

Which draft would capture your attention, cause you to perk up, and want to keep reading?
The second draft sets an interesting scene and makes you want to keep reading. Check out another BEFORE and AFTER from one of my other clients.

I can recall walking into my freshman year creative writing class. Why I was in creative writing, I was not sure. I did NOT like to write, nor did I consider myself, in the least bit, creative.

A man who would
give his all and keep nothing back
A friend who stayed
up all night discussing movies, politics
And life
Even in our sadness
we remember his joy
As I stood that day in front of my creative writing class, reading my obituary, I scanned the roomful of eyes, all fixed on me

In his first draft, this student described how the creative writing assignment to pen his own obituary changed his feelings about writing and ultimately life. I suggested he begin with a few lines from the actual obit. Much more compelling and revealing, don’t you agree?

Pull the reader in by setting a scene. Use sensory details- help him/her feel they are truly there with you, whether that’s in a shanty town in Peru or second-period English class. Then you can give the background. You must capture your reader’s attention first, and you only have the first few lines to accomplish this feat.

Heather Tomasello